A Life in Literature: P. G. Wodehouse

Richard Bateman 24 May 2014

“It was one of those parties where you cough twice before you speak and then decide not to say it after all.”

Gleeful moments, aren’t they, when you read something in a book and realise that, in fact, it’s not just you who has been in that situation, but a total stranger too? I have now been to many of ‘those’ parties, and in fact still go through the motions that P. G. Wodehouse was describing when chairing MCR committee meetings.

I hadn’t been to many parties when I was fourteen though. That’s because – oh, irony! – while the cool kids were beginning to get revved up on Hooch (you, dear reader, were probably still necking Calpol and Farley’s Rusks. This was long ago), I was speed-reading as many Jeeves and Wooster stories as I could get my mittens on.


They really are rather absorbing                                                               Credit: Steven P. Rodriguez

Blame the parents. It was on a long car journey to Ripon that I was introduced to J&W via an audio cassette (I told you – long ago) of Richard Briers and Michael Horden’s brilliant Radio 4 production of Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. Initially sniffy, I was soon – probably from the moment when Bertie Wooster tells Stilton Cheesewright that his head has ‘a touch of the dome of St Paul’s about it’ – base over apex with it all.

Laugh? Like a drain. I still do. Hard not to when confronted with lines like “A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle”, or “Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice”.  And that’s way before we get to the spectacular phrases he employed for describing hangovers.


Cocktails feature heavily                                                                                     Credit: David Leong

Soon to be aided by the glories of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue – I really was the coolest teenager around – through Wodehouse I became aware of the near-unlimited potential the English language has; of the joy of the phrase that comes in at you sideways; of the virtue of silliness; and of the supreme importance of not taking things too seriously. Best of all, because my friends were permanently drunk (this may be a lie), I had all this wonderment all to myself.

So, as you drown in your final essay, as you become terrified at the imminence of your deadlines, as you panic about having not yet written all 80,000 words of your PhD thesis in your first year, as you, indeed, flail beneath the stress of it all, just take a moment to ask yourself, ‘how would Jeeves deal with this?’, then buy a Wodehouse, and let him tell you:

“My advice, sir, would be to fortify yourself for the ordeal.”

“How…?”

“There are always cocktails, sir. Shall I pour you another?”